The Last Colony: A Tale of Exile, Justice and Britain’s Colonial Legacy – Book Review

By Bob Newland

This is a very timely publication. It tells the terrible story of Britain and the United States (US) abuse of the people of the Chagos Archipeligo, condemned in the recently published report of Human Rights Watch as a crime against humanity (Morning Star 17 February 2023).

Based on the saga of the Chagos islanders the book tells a wider story.  Its author, Philippe Sands, is an international law practitioner.  While chronicling the last throws of British Colonialism, he focusses on the international legal framework for this rather than the national liberation struggles with which readers may be more familiar.

This is not to detract from the drama of the story.  Starting with the defeat of Nazi Germany it delves into events behind the drafting of the ‘Atlantic Charter’ by Churchill and Roosevelt and the creation of the United Nations (UN).    According to the author, ‘Roosevelt saw the Charter as announcing an end to empire … [providing] a tool that promised people … ‘their own nation state’.  Churchill meanwhile promised the House of Commons that the Charter did not mean ‘an end to Britain’s Colonies’. 

Of course, the great hopes of Mandela, many other leaders of colonised peoples and progressives worldwide that the UN would usher in the end of colonialism and a new world of peace and equality were dashed as Britain, the US and other imperialist powers pursued their national interests.

People of good will did use International Law to challenge some of the worst excesses of the imperialist powers.  Sands documents cases as diverse as Nicaragua and South-West Africa (Namibia) to illustrate  success and failure in applications to the International Court in the Hague.  Many of these rulings were ignored.

Returning to the book’s main title, ‘The Last Colony’.  I initially thought this to be erroneous believing that Britain had several remaining colonies.  Online research confirmed that Britain has 14 colonies now hidden beneath the thin disguise of ‘British Overseas Territories’.  Reading on, one discovers that ‘the British Indian Ocean Territory’ (BIOT), as the Chagos became known, was in fact not the last remaining British Colony but rather the last one created.

Much to their shame, it was the Wilson Labour Government that was responsible for the ‘illegal’ separation of the Chagos Archipeligo from Mauritius.  They used bullying and bribery to gain the acquiescence of the leaders of Mauritius with the final promise being independence for their country after the partition.  Britain subsequently granted Mauritius independence in 1967.   What came to light very soon after was this manoeuvre was a cynical plan to remove the population of the islands and hand Diego Garcia, the largest of them, over to the United States for a strategic airbase. Within days of independence, Britain signed the agreement granting the US the rights to build their airbase. 

Despite the 1949 Geneva Convention explicitly prohibiting the ‘forcible transfer’ of individuals or groups or their deportation from one territory to another, the people of the islands were forcibly removed by Britain to Mauritius or the UK,  permitted only to carry hand baggage.  They and their descendants continue to campaign for the right to return in accordance with natural justice and International Law.

Sands explores the many rulings of various international courts and tribunals usually but not always against the UK.  An interesting episode was when Robin Cook, Foreign Secretary in the Blair Labour Government agreed to permit the former residents of the islands except Diego Garcia to their homes.  Tragically for them, the Iraq War intervened. Cook resigned and Jack Straw, his replacement, reneged of the commitment adding yet another crime against international law to that of his pursuit of the illegal Iraq War.

In its latest considerations on the Chagos, the International Court of Justice rejected efforts by the UK Government to obtain a ruling that the Court had no jurisdiction.  Following this they expressed the opinion that ‘BIOT was illegally separated from Mauritius’.  Various judges made statements with regard to their deliberations.  The Jamaican Judge spoke harshly likening the enforced removal to ‘the abduction and enslavement of millions of Africans’.   The Court unanimously referred the question of the return of the people of the Chagos to the UN General Assembly.  Britain has yet to comply with these requirements.

As a lifelong supporter of the Movement for Colonial Freedom (MCF) and subsequently Liberation I have one complaint which is that the book does not mention the long campaign waged by MCF/Liberation against this crime nor the many interventions in Parliament by [former Liberation President] Stan Newens MP.  That said, the book is a fascinating and informative read for anyone interested in the process of decolonisation or more generally the history of the UN and International Law.

The Last Colony: A Tale of Exile, Justice and Britain’s Colonial Legacy by Philippe Sands.  Publisher Weidenfeld and Nicholson £16.99

Bob Newland is a Liberation member and former London Recruit

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